b.O.s. 19.2 / Sky Box II / Ellen Tani

A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.

—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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Charles Gaines, Sky Box II, 2020; acrylic, digital print, aluminum, polyester film, and LED lights; courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Installation view in New Work: Charles Gaines, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Photo: Studio Charles Gaines.

The installation Sky Box II (2021) by Charles Gaines shifts between the appearance of the night sky and images of legal documents in an embrace of opacity and the incommensurable. When the room is fully illuminated one encounters a paneled wall of words, some typed and some handwritten. On the upper register of the wall are facsimiles of antique pages whose small cursive writing and height of installation makes them nearly unreadable. The contents of the documents are transcribed in print on the lower register of the wall. Although more legible, they remain inscrutable blocks of legalese. They document the 1846 trials of Dred Scott, which would famously culminate in the 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sandford decision by the United States Supreme Court. The transcribed texts comprise a conversation between lawyers, witnesses, and judges in the form of long, compound sentences with looping clauses that require sustained attention. They entail points of clarification with regard to non-whiteness (“these negroes”… “a woman of color”) and corrections with regard to personhood and property (“Dred Scott was a slave was purchased as a slave”). Mediating all of this content is the perforated surface of the artwork, which is an architecturally-scaled lightbox.

Charles Gaines, Sky Box II, 2020; acrylic, digital print, aluminum, polyester film, and LED lights; courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Installation view in New Work: Charles Gaines, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

As the lights in the room fade on a seven-minute timer, a secondary image appears with greater clarity: a dazzling view of stars in space. The size of the holes in the lightbox and the colors of the lights match the size and temperature of the corresponding stars of the source image (taken by the Hubble telescope). Under the glow of this wondrous atmosphere, the text becomes inscrutable and the opacity of legal language as a tool of power comes into view against the opacity of the night sky. We are left pondering the question of race, a question of who gives value to difference. In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, it was a legal system that asserted, so matter-of-factly and as if it were not white supremacist in origin, that “these negroes” were not citizens because at the time of the constitution’s writing they were “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings.”1 The overtly racist decision is considered the worst in U.S. legal history, and even though it was legally reversed by the 13th and 14th amendments, the cultural ramifications of its standing as precedent for legal discrimination remain. As Gaines asserts, “We live our lives differently as minorities than we did in the 1800s, but the struggles are still the same.”2

Gaines focuses not on the supreme court decision, but on its rather mundane beginnings with documents from the first Circuit Court case that lay bare the bureaucratic machinations of the legal system.3 The reproduced documents detail the locations of the Scotts at certain times and depositions to confirm that they were being held as slaves, under whose ownership they remained, and to whom they were hired out; all of it very logistical. Justice Taney’s logic in the 1857 supreme court case, by contrast, was neatly embedded in a sweeping argument that invalidated both the Missouri Compromise and the territorial statute as overreaches of federal jurisdiction, stoking the flames of civil war.4

Sky Box II points to the opacity of legal language and the weaponization of that opacity as foundational constructs of the United States.  At the same time, the omnipresence of the night sky suggests what might exceed or elide those constructs, even as the question of race appears to be temporarily decentered. The superimposition of the night sky and the juridical archive creates a space of indeterminacy where the roles of viewer and reader are dynamically entangled. It demands atmospheric thinking, a way to acknowledge the multiplicity of meanings that surround the work and that are produced by it. Such thinking does not tether the work to a specific historic referent or locate it in a stable genealogy of art history. Rather, it brings into view the various conceptual, systematic, and ideological forces that typically escape representation.

 

It is an atmospheric blackness, or what Michelle Wright identifies as the “entropic polyvalence” of its physics, that motivates the work’s conceptual power.5 The atmospheric encapsulates phenomenological experience (insofar as human survival depends on the earth’s atmospheric composition) and the dynamic of feelings and tensions that shape sociality, from Frantz Fanon’s description of the colonial state as a breathing body and colonialism as a form of “atmospheric violence,” to Christina Sharpe’s incisive invocation of   antiblackness as “the weather.”6 In Sky Box II, a conceptual-atmospheric blackness that lives in the interstice of bodies and cultures offers an abstraction that recalibrates black representational space into a more dynamic constellation.7

Although humans have an innate cognitive impulse to make relational sense of two things presented together, the incommensurability of dry legal language and the celestial sublime may exceed our capacity to imagine. It compels us to sit with the mixture of wonder, frustration, confusion and recognition produced therein. Gaines offers no solutions, claiming: “I’m not using this to liberate the world. My thoughts are more abstract than that.”8 Abstraction and conceptualism have long been understood as either unable to encapsulate racialized experience or as tactics to cleanse Black artists’ work of racial politics. But as scholars of African American abstraction have recently argued, what might initially seem like a tactic of separating oneself from the social world is in fact the pursuit of a mode that is capacious enough to address that world differently.9

Sky Box II questions structures and systems of power: state power, federal power, and legal power. It points to the elements of a corruptible system—a convoluted pathway, factual burdens of proof, rigid legal standards, procedural hurdles, fees beyond what an enslaved person could pay—unfolding before us, as vast and unmappable as the night sky. Yet the sky’s luminosity activates the expansive conditions of Black life that speed its atmospheric persistence in the face of increasingly narrowing access to power.

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This is one of four essays from the nineteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:

19.1/Belly/Lauren Cramer

19.3/On Similitude/Lindsay Reckson

19.4/The Terror and the Time/Stefano Harney and Fred Moten

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Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.

Endnotes

  1. Taney’s full rationale reads: “The words ‘people of the United States’ and ‘citizens’ are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the “sovereign people,” and every citizen is one of this people and a constituent member of this sovereignty. The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.” https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/dred-scott-v-sandford
  2. “Charles Gaines: why is a bird a bird, and I’m not?” SFMoMA online, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL6LAgXLAqTH8kowfElgDeskRFGCx_w4_z&v=JtAqAR00xcc
  3. In April 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott exercised the right for any person of any color to sue for wrongful enslavement if they were taken to a free territory, which was codified in an 1807 Missouri territorial statute. States were still in formation under the 1820 Missouri Compromise, a speculative effort to support the coexistence in one nation of pro- and anti-slavery elements that disagreed about the fundamental status of personhood. With the Compromise, Congress passed a law that admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while banning slavery from the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands located north of the 36 degree 30’ parallel.
  4. The movement of bodies across territorial lines has searing relevance to our polarized society today—I write this reeling from the supreme court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and the inevitable persecution of women who cross state lines to seek medical care, and from the many ways in which Black mobility is policed by extrajudicial violence.
  5. Wright, who defines blackness as both a historical idea and a phenomenological experience, argues that “In any given moment, when the spectator engages a work of art, different valences of Blackness may formulate, expand, or multiply, qualitatively and quantitatively” (56). Michelle Wright, “Forces to be Reckoned with: Michelle Wright on the Physics of Black art,” Artforum Volume 53, Issue 10 (Summer 2015): 155-56.
  6. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1963]), 31. “The weather,” writes Sharpe, “is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is antiblack.” Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 104.
  7. Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 2. See also Leigh Raiford, “Burning All Illusion: Abstraction, Black Life, and the Making of White Supremacy,” Art Journal (Winter 2020), 91.
  8. “So you can look at this night sky as a kind of language or that the issue of the question itself is about race, and identity is a transcendent construction that is larger than our ability to imagine.”
    “Charles Gaines: why is a bird a bird, and I’m not?” SFMoMA online, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL6LAgXLAqTH8kowfElgDeskRFGCx_w4_z&v=JtAqAR00xcc
  9. See Sarah Lewis, “African American Abstraction” in A Companion to African American Art History, ed. Eddie Chambers (New York: Routledge, 2020), 158-172.